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Boston isn't exactly known to be in the big leagues of BBQ cities. In fact, we are more like that Double-A minor league team that you take your kids to see while you are visiting Grandma out in the sticks. Which is not to say you can't get some pretty tasty BBQ around here, but none that really screams to me "Welcome to the Game, Baby!" [To be fair, I haven't tried Tiffani Faison's Sweet Cheeks in Fenway yet.]
So the long-running hype surrounding Andy Husband's THE SMOKE SHOP (IIRC, it was originally supposed to open in August last year) could be chalked up to some over-eager food writer's flights of fancy, if it weren't for Andy's BBQ bona fides. Originally, he worked with Chris Schlesinger at the legendary East Coast Grill. But even more significantly, he is one of the founding members of IQUE, the first New England team to ever win the Jack Daniel's World Championship BBQ Invitational in 2009. TSS happens to be his second restaurant, after Tremont 647 in the South End, and he was also on TV's Hell's Kitchen (but we will forgive him for the latter).
THE SMOKE SHOPE is a complete redesign of the old, and quickly forgotten, Tommy Doyle's in One Kendall Square. OKS has become quite the foodie destination these days, with restaurants like Cambridge Brewing Co, The Blue Room, State Park, Friendly Toast, and the forthcoming Mamalah's. Andy has done a great job on the new space (check out my pano pic on Facebook, it's to big to upload here). It's a fairly large, spacious restaurant, with high tops and ~20 well-spaced bar seats, with more tables in back. I counted at least 4 large plasma screens. And the floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding the high-tops open wide on to the OKS courtyard, where there will be more seating soon. Reservations via Reserve.
We visited on their 3rd night open, this past Monday, arriving right at the 5PM opening time (lunches reportedly began on Tuesday). Once seated at the bar, I went right for the ribs, which from the name I'm guessing is the same meat that put IQUE over the top at the Jack:
1ST PLACE RIB PLATE: Including house pickles, pickled beets & onions, watermelon, and any two of the nine offered sides, of which I selected CORNBREAD (with honey sea salt butter) and BACON COLLARDS.
When the food arrives, the first thing you notices is that this is BEAUTIFUL BBQ. Most BBQ joints are more about piling it high on paper/foil, damn the presentation. Not at TSS: this BBQ is ***composed***. This following teaser video from last year gives you a good idea what I'm talking about:
Mouth watering yet? And yes, it tastes as good as it looks.
The ribs appear to be dry rubbed and then lightly sauced at the end, just this side of sticky. VERY lean ribs, which I love, but still perfectly moist and tender. I will say that Andy likes sweet BBQ. For example, of the two sauces contained in large squeeze bottles, the SWEET is moderately, but not cloyingly, sweet. The HOT sauce has a similar spice profile, maybe a bit more complex (or that is just batch variation), but is definitely less sweet, with a nice but not very challenging level of heat. I eventually decided I like the ribs best with a little extra hot sauce on top.
The pickles were excellent, and the cornbread nice although on the sweet side. However, the collards, beautifully al dente with chunks of pork throughout, are quite sweet. Not like any collards I've ever had, and I'm not really sure what to make of them.
There is also a good-sized cocktail/beer/wine list, and an impressive whiskey list that will be worth perusing further. I enjoyed a couple of refreshing cocktails:
MEZCAL PALOMA: Peloton de le Muerte Mezcal, agave, lime, grapefruit, soda, salt ($12)
BOURBON ARNOLD PALMER: Bulleit Bourbon, black iced tea, Demerara lemonade, Angostura, mint ($12)
Service at the bar was friendly, with no opening week jitters apparent. Of course, since this is OKS, parking was easy across the street in the movie theatre lot (another reason to love OKS).
I thought the price, $36 before tip, for a 1/2 slab dinner with 2 sides, plus 2 cocktails was reasonable, particularly given the decent quantity of food and its high quality.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed our visit, and will definitely be back soon to try more of the menu. But is it "major league" BBQ? Well, from reading the menu, Andy is showcasing an eclectic mix of BBQ styles and non-BBQ influences (particularly Asian), so BBQ purists might be tempted to call foul. However, I have to say, these were probably the best ribs I've had in the Boston area, but I'm still going to hold off on the hype until I can try more of the menu. That smoked & fried chicken sandwich sounds tempting (apparently a several day recipe).
Definitely a strong contender for the best BBQ in Boston...
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